By Nadia Turner
“Gem, we have a mountain to climb and you are going to climb it with daddy. We are going to climb it together.” These are the words that Martyn Mills told his daughter Gemma after she was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) in 2016. Gemma, who had been sick for months, was finally diagnosed on 28 December 2016 at the age of 9 years old, and so began the difficult journey to save her life.
Gemma started the unbearable treatment of high-risk chemotherapy every day for 6 months and many other painful and traumatic treatments and procedures, including 7 surgeries. During this time, Gemma also received countless life-saving blood transfusions. When the 6 months of daily chemotherapy was completed, Gemma continued her treatment as an outpatient for 2½ years at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, while attending school at Springfield Convent School as a grade 5 pupil. During the most intense and challenging part of her treatment, Gemma was offered the opportunity to spend some creative time in the art studio of Helen Von Stolk, a celebrated South African artist. She found this to be very therapeutic and she produced some beautiful art, including the one of a woman’s face.
On 27 February 2019, after 2½ years of chemotherapy Gemma rang the bell signifying the completion of treatment and announcing she was in remission. Unfortunately, one year later in April 2020, during the global pandemic, the Mills family found out that she had relapsed and her cancer was back. She resumed aggressive chemotherapy and spent most days in hospital. The family learnt that her best long-term option would be a bone marrow transplant and received the unbelievable news that her sister Kaelyn Mills was a perfect match. Gemma received the bone marrow transplant and spent 31 days in the transplant unit, she also received many units of platelets, to once again save her life.
Even though the transplant was a success, Gemma is still dealing with many side-effects from her treatments, and has to take extra precautions to stay healthy during COVID-19.
“At the moment everything that is happening in the world is scary and it’s okay for children to be fearful”, says Gemma. “Also, take comfort in your parents’ words that everything will be fine; trust and believe in them”. Gemma has been lucky to have the support of her amazing family. They have stood by her and continue to do so.
Gemma’s story is about love, hope, courage and strength, which we hope will inspire all of us to do something remarkable. Without the life-saving blood and blood products that Gemma received throughout her journey, she would not be here today. Gemma is strong and brave, she is a cancer warrior.